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Obama yet to address perception he is style over substance

Voices in the U.S. are growing louder asking the question: Is Barack Obama all style and little substance?

The freshman Illinois senator began his campaign facing the perception that he lacks the experience to be president, especially compared to rivals with decades of work on foreign and domestic policy. So far, he has done little to challenge it. He has delivered no policy speeches and provided few details about how he would lead the country.

Instead, he has focused on motivating his impressive following with a call for unity and change in Washington. But along with the attention comes a hunger to hear more about what he is about.

"The Obama campaign has been smart about recognizing that voters don't want to be lost in the valley of policy only," said Democratic consultant Jenny Backus. "But it's a gap that's going to have to be filled as he goes on."

Obama has a lot of time to fill in the blanks between now and Election Day in November 2008, and certainly many other candidates are short on details this early in the race. But they do not have such a barrier to prove they are qualified to be president.

At a union forum Tuesday, Obama sought to answer the questions, arguing that he has experience as a state legislator, community organizer and constitutional law professor. He also cited his work in the Senate on nuclear proliferation.

"I am confident in my ability to lead," Obama told the crowd.

The differences among the Democratic candidates were on display Saturday in Las Vegas, where the contenders answered questions about health care, expected to be a key issue in the campaign. More than 45 million Americans do not have health care.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the only other candidate to serve less time in elective office than Obama, described in detail his health care plan to provide insurance for all Americans. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton does not have a written plan yet, but no one questions her expertise, since she was the chief proponent of the issue during her husband's presidency.

Daniel Romo, 45, a clerk at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles and a member of the Service Employees International Union that sponsored the forum, left with Clinton and Edwards as his top choices. Obama did not impress him.

"I believe that he needed to know a little more about health care issues and he was just unprepared," Romo said.

David Peter, a child support case worker and member of the SEIU in Las Vegas who was also in the audience, said Obama may have been better off not participating in the forum. Peter is a local organizer for anti-war candidate Dennis Kucinich, but said he was impressed with Clinton's health care plan and disappointed in Obama.

"He wasn't prepared for it," Peter said. "I saw him speak here about a month ago and it was on his issues and just on sort of introducing himself to the people and I thought he was much better on that speech than he was in this forum."

Obama was pressed by a union member in the audience who said she went to his Web site to learn more about his health care vision, but did not find much beyond his commitment to reduce HIV/AIDS and lead poisoning.

"Keep in mind that our campaign now is I think a little over eight weeks old," Obama said. He promised that a detailed plan would show up in the next couple of months, after he has a chance to talk to more people involved in the system to get their input.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the discussion will begin April 3, when Obama plans to talk to hospital workers in the state of New Hampshire and other community members at a meeting co-sponsored by the Portsmouth Herald newpaper.

The northeast state of New Hampshire holds the first presidential primary in the U.S. in early 2008 and is a critical stop on the road to the presidential nomination.

"This is bigger than the Washington insiders - he wants to take this out across the country," Burton said.

If Obama were running in a different time, he might get more of a break for lacking specifics. Primary votes were already being cast in the 1984 Democratic primary when Sen. Walter Mondale famously ridiculed opponent Sen. Gary Hart by asking, "Where's the beef?" Four years ago, no candidate for president had a health care plan this early in the game.

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